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Rare & Endangered Government Publications committee (REGP) panel discussion at ALA Annual: GPO’s National Plan for Access to U.S. Govt Information

At the 2016 ALA Annual Conference, held in Orlando in late June, GODORT’s Rare & Endangered Government Publications committee hosted a panel discussion about GPO’s National Plan for Access to U.S. Government Information. The discussion responded to four questions:

  • How can depositories ensure preservation of their tangible collections while still providing access for users?<
  • What do you see as one pro and one con of GPO’s new Regional Discard Policy?
  • In your opinion, is digital deposit by depository libraries a viable option for preserving born-digital government information?
  • Is it feasible to assume that the Government can guarantee the preservation of all government information “in perpetuity to ensure the continued accountability of the Government to its present and future citizens”?

Kirsten Clark, Daniel Cornwall, and Shari Laster addressed these questions along with those posed by attendees. Daniel and Shari have put together summaries of their remarks here (Daniel) and here (Shari). Below are some key points:

From Daniel’s remarks:

Aside from being chronically underresourced for preserving and dissemination, the strong natural incentives for government are to hide or destroy information, not to preserve it. There are least four circumstances when the government has a strong incentive to destroy information:

  1. When information becomes outdated. This is particularly true with web sites. The majority of users benefit from only having the most current information. Having to sift through older reports – unless you are a historical researcher is wading through clutter. So a gov’t web designer looking for the most benefit for the highest number, will ensure that only a short crisp menu of the latest information is available.
  2. When information was generated by a previous Administration. It’s a known fact that after the end of term of a federal or state executive, all reports and other information productions belonging to the predecessor’s office are wiped clean off the government website and not normally preserved by the incoming administration.
  3. When information is perceived as embarrassing. A few Administrations bravely admit their mistakes and learn from them. Most try to sweep them under the rug.
  4. When information is perceived as a threat to national security. It only takes one terror attack to get the government going “OMG! OMG! Mosaic Theory!” to get them going about the perceived dangers of having some material in the public record – even it had been in the public record for years. Witness the withdrawal of some USGS Water Supply CDs and the attempted removal of long public Treasury money laundering reports after 9/11. The second withdrawal would have happened if not for the loud outcry of librarians and financial researchers. In an all digital, government centric server world, the reports would have been deleted from access as a fait accompli.

These incentives were present in the print era, but much harder to act upon. Once physical items were in the hands of federal depositories, a public recall order had to be issued. If the order seemed to be made for reasons 2-4 above, such orders were often publicly disputed. But when all government information resides on federal servers, “recalls” can happen at the push of a button without debate. We cannot risk that happening to the public record.

From Shari’s remarks:

Dark archives are a sterile approach to preservation. You keep the “concatenation of atoms” of the original object, but collections under lock and key are counter to the spirit of no-fee permanent public access: they privilege access to the few who are positioned & resourced to navigate permissions. They’re also vulnerable to the winds of political and economic change. When you have an information source that by definition can’t have a user, the justification of the resources it takes to protect it becomes a lot harder.

I’d like to advocate for an active, adaptive, and messy approach to preserving tangible collections. After all, we already know that these collections are secure for the long term to the extent that we rely on redundancy. If my local user spills her coffee all over my collection’s copy of a publication, I’d like to be able to obtain or make a high-quality reproduction and give it right back to her so she can dig back in!

By building collections for users, we focus our work where it’s most likely to be fruitful. I know there’s an argument that all government information should be saved for posterity because we don’t know for sure what will be important to the future. In truth, we are already make judgments about ephemera, filing updates, superseding, and so on. We also know the core documents of democracy are not in real danger, and saving every pamphlet from every federal agency is beyond the power of all of us. The space between these two approaches is filled by all of us working collaboratively to maintain collections that meet the needs of our communities, both broadly and uniquely construed.

More background and discussion:

Following the conference, GPO made more information available about the Regional Discard Policy, and launched a new site: Implementing the Regional Discard Policy. This addresses much of the need for clarification identified by all three panelists, and has been explored in more depth in a recent post, “Analysis of the Regional Discard Policy: What you need to know about implementation.”